Given how much American chroniclers have made of James Otis, Jr.’s arguments against writs of assistance, we might expect writers of his time to have a lot to say about the case. But in fact it received virtually no attention in the press in 1761.
In his 1939 article on “Writs of Assistance as a Cause of the Revolution,” Oliver M. Dickerson wrote:
Careful search of these [newspapers] discloses no general information about applications for writs of assistance nor much discussion of the question of issuing them, except that contained in the Journal of the Times [a series of essays published in 1768-69]. So far, no contemporary pamphlet that has come to light has been devoted mainly to a discussion of writs of assistance. On the other hand, there are many such pamphlets dealing with practically every other issue connected with the British treatment of the American colonies.With digital databases now available, I decided to check Dickerson’s findings. I searched for “James Otis” and “Oxenbridge Thacher” in newspapers and pamphlets published in 1761. I searched for “writ of assistance,” “writs of assistance,” and, given the quirks of O.C.R. scanning, “writ of afsiftance.” And indeed there’s practically nothing in that year. The pertinent hits are:
- In the 9 Mar 1761 Boston Post-Boy, Otis swore under oath that he had not written a recent newspaper satire on “Charles Froth, Esq.”—Customs official Charles Paxton. This suggests the lawyer had gotten a reputation for attacking the Customs office.
- In the 7 Dec 1761 Boston Gazette, an essay signed “A Fair Trader” complained that the Customs office in Boston was much stricter than those in other ports. Among the problems:
WRITS OF ASSISTANCE are now established and granted to the Officers of the Customs, who were tho’t by many Persons, to have had full Power enough over us before.—If it be said that all this is no more than the Law prescribes, I again ask, Whether the Law is carried to these Extremities in any other Province?This essay is quoted in M. H. Smith’s The Writs of Assistance Case, published in 1978.
- Newspapers and legislative records note the election of Otis to the Massachusetts General Court as a representative of Boston in the middle of that year.
- [ADDENDUM: A different type of search turned up a report on the second and decisive court session about this case in November, again from the Boston Gazette.]
Otis’s argument simply wasn’t big news in 1761. Only in the following years, as he and his Whig colleagues expanded their argument against Parliament making laws for the colonies, did it take on wider significance.
TOMORROW: James Otis’s political career and writings.